Hardscape in landscaping

is the hard, dead, heavy stuff that you can make a good buck on

during the installation

its the wood deck with a view and a cut out for the oak tree trunk

its the Sonoma field stone retaining wall

20 tons of stone you had to haul through an illegal in law apartment with narrow doors

its the flagstone slabs that came in a crate, but you ordered em too thin

and they kept on snappin one after another during transport, blame the laborers

its the long metal strip of edging border which wiggled and wobbled as you set it in place

its the bags of concrete, poured and screeded, floated and edged

its the yellow grained decomposed granite in the back of your pickup, scratching the paint

hardscape all


Safety is foremost

in selection and in construction

say you design your client a flagstone patio

the red slightly uneven flagstone that reminds you of Arizona and javelinas and road runners

the client lives in the western part of San Francisco, in the Sunset district

all good

the patio gets installed in spring when the weather is nice and the winds are strong

come summer, in rolls the fog, nobody goes to the garden

its just too darn cold

algae spores find the nice gritty crevassed contours of the patio and make their home on it

by fall, the patio is a goopy slimy green mess

winter, more of the same

dad is slipping and falling

grandma is scared to go out there

client not happy, “You didn’t tell me that this would happen!”

you like, “All you gotta do is scrub it hard with a light bleach solution…”

client – “But what will happen to the thyme we planted in between the stones?” , “I thought you said this was going to be low maintenance?”, so on and so forth

so ponder function and use, climate and weather, choice of hardscape

before you make a design decision, before you order the 3 cubic yards of drain rock


Or in another instance, its the safety of the workers

you might consider

its one thing to pick out a nice boulder in the rock yard

the 15 ton granite one in the back that transports you straight to the rainbow falls of the sierras

its quite another to move and place that chunk of rock

into the 40’ x 25’ backyard garden, with no side gate or garage access

somebody is gonna get hurt

unless you budget for a crane…


Permeability and drainage is one more issue

that is a priority

say you visualize an absolutely beautiful stunning outdoor room

shining with blue slate tiles cut sharp and crisp on the ground

underneath the slate, a slab of concrete on which it sits, mortared in place

so when the rains come, this surface does not let any water down into the earth

it is impermeable

so when the water hits it, gathers volume and force, where does it go?

hopefully there is a drain, hopefully it slopes away from the house

if not, uh oh, problems

say bye bye to the elegant Persian hand woven rug soaked to the core

say adios to the bamboo floors warping and jackknifing

these are

problems that could be solved if you understand the forces of mother nature

problems that could be avoided if you sit outside in the winter rains and observed

problems that you create because you design in a vacuum of a screen

not in the ecology of the outdoors and the persistence of time

problems of poor planning and bad design


Rot is a conundrum

because wood is yummy food

not for us, but for a number of other creatures

especially when it gets wet

so if you go cheap and be like – oh just gimme the pine boards or bargain basement doug fir

or if your design is such that mud and soil gather atop your wooden bench day in day out

and the water works its way down the fibers throughout the 2 x 6

how long will the structure last? 

when will the wood become nothing but shredded white fibers and crumblin’ brown blocks?


Along this same line of questioning:

There is a chemical treatment, pressure treatment that renders the wood less amenable to attack by fungi

the orangey green weighted wood with the staple marks called PT

packed with copper compounds, basically fungus poisons

then you are designing a nice vegetable garden with raised beds

a bed that you will fill with organic, compost-fed kale bush beans and cauliflower

do you use PT lumber for the raised bed?  why or why not?



is endless decisions like these

you can ask the folks in the lumber yard, the kind people behind the counter of the stone yard

for advice and assistance

they understand quantities and volumes and weights and coverage

you can talk to the contractors who put stuff like this in all the time

how do you rat proof and skunk proof the low area under the deck?

is clear heart redwood worth the cost?  is it even available? in what sizes?

do you work with ipe ironwood?  why or why not?

I got pesky neighbors and I want privacy.  how tall can I build that fence?

what do you know about bamboo?


Most importantly, it is the field gardeners who have the first hand knowledge

of watching a garden grow and change over time

thats the test and the outcome

remember that this creation this masterpiece this work of art

is not a machine with a one year warranty, tucked indoors away from the elements

nor is it an unbreakable hunk o plastic with a lifetime guarantee

it is a garden you are designing and building

a place with constant weather, insistent pests, and a whole lotta dynamic action all the time


Gardeners can best tell you how water and irrigation and algae interact with the hardscape

they can describe in detail –

how people get tripped up by a slight unintentional grade change

or how people become deterred by the aberrant flow of a pathway

gardeners know what designs don’t work

they know that the designer never shoveled a bucket of sand

they know that the architect never mixed up a batch of mortar

gardens that are the result of careless ignorance or mindful disobedience of nature’s workings

gardens where they cut corners and treat labor poorly

gardens where a skilled craftsperson or a knowledgeable horticulturist is nothing more than a slave or a serf or an indentured servant

“slap it together, get in n get out”

“do what I tell you to do or else…”

gardens where the selection of hardscape, and its placement, are inappropriate


So after a while, you begin to figure out what designs do work

cause the hardscape is strong and firm and holds up fine

cause it does what it is supposed to do

it entertains the family and friends

without causing hurt or harm

it provides a sense of order and structure and direction in the yard

and reminds you of the rocky hills and creek bottom drainages of comforting woods

it takes you to a happy place

year after year after year


This takes a little maintenance, of course

broom the leaves off the deck

clean the paths

weed around the stepping stones

pressure wash the tiles

and so on

Hardscape – lotta work at the outset, but so fulfilling in the long term

if it is done right, it ages gracefully into somewhat permanent magic